Pay before you eat

Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: We're headed to Chicago next week to report on the jobs situation. And in our pre-departure research, we've learned Chicago is a place of invention and re-invention. So leave it to a couple of Chicago restaurateurs to completely re-think the dining experience. For Chef Grant Achatz, that kind of rethinking is part of his DNA.

Five years ago, he opened his restaurant Alinea, a pioneer in molecular gastronomy. This fall his next establishment, called "Next," will reinvent the way you pay to dine out. Make a reservation. Pay a flat fee upfront -- depending on when you're dining. Eat, enjoy and leave.

I asked Chef Achatz why he's upending the traditional dining transaction.

Grant Achatz: Well, I think, you know, the goal there is to have an experience where you're focused on the food and the wine and the company that you're with. And by eliminating that whole transaction at the end, we've just eliminated a part of the experience that is typically not very pleasant. You know, like when you buy theater tickets, you've already paid, you walk in, you watch the performance, and you get up and leave when it's over. And that's kind of the impetus for this.

The scheme is actually the brainchild of Achatz's business partner Nick Kokonas, a former derivatives trader who saw no reason why a restaurant should operate differently from other markets.

Nick Kokonas: It just seems obvious to me that pricing shouldn't be constant. And in almost every industry, except for the restaurant industry, that's acknowledged, and people not only accept it, but embrace it.

Think airline tickets: Your price depends a lot on what time you're flying and how much demand there is for that flight. Same here.

Kokonas: We're going to price the highest-demand times and dates at the highest price, and lower-demand times, if there are any, at a lower price.

Vigeland: So you kind of have an early-bird special, kind of like Denny's?

Kokonas: You know, it's just like Denny's, that's what we're shooting for. No, it's just, in any city, at any time, there are people who don't want to dine at 10:00 at night. And it's just our way of acknowledging what everybody knows anyway, which is, there are peak times, there are times that to some people are less optimal.

So what will you pay? Achatz says the average prix fixe menu will fall somewhere between $40 and $75, depending on the season, with wine pairings for another $25. And the tip? That is included in your pre-paid ticket. There's also talk of a subscription program, so I asked the chef is that meant a discount for buying the entire season.

Achatz: Well, I think I'll let Nick take this one.

Vigeland: OK.

Kokonas: Perhaps. Yeah, we'll do a set pricing for the year, and you'll be able to come to all four menus for the year at a package price essentially.

Vigeland: And do you think you would be able to do this in another major metropolitan area like, say, New York City? Or is this something made possible by the foodies of Chicago?

Achatz: I think a lot of it is going to be based on demand, for sure, but I think certainly, we think that the diners of Chicago are the most embracing of risk-taking. I mean, that can be easily shown by Alinea, probably what most consider the most innovative, progressive restaurant in the country, most people would think that would be in New York. But here we are right smack dab in the middle of the Midwest, so that kind of debunks that whole theory that we're a conservative, meat-and-potato type people here.

Chef Grant Achatz and his business partner Nick Kokonas speaking with us from Chicago, where their next restaurant adventure, Next, is set to open later this fall.

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